ONE FC 8 “Kings and Champions” An Emotional Rollercoaster

“Kings and Champions”, ONE FC’s eighth event held in its home country of Singapore, showcased an intriguing cross-section of matches from regional up-and-comers to MMA stalwarts. The first of its events to be broadcast live on Star Sports was an historic moment for the promotion, and beyond the excitement of a packed arena, amazing production, and hometown fervor, it was above all a very emotional night.

If you don’t like a good tear-jerker, stop reading now. If sappy Korean dramas full of forlorn love triangles with a terminally ill woman aren’t your thing, click the back button. But – and don’t feel ashamed to be in touch with your sensitive side here – if you find the emotional aspect of the sport of MMA to be an integral part of it, well then grab a tissue and please read on.

An MMA journalist (I’m taking a lot of license here) by nature must be unbiased, objective, and pretty much leave friendships out of it when it comes to watching a fight. This past weekend tested those objective objectives. Through the past couple of years I’ve gotten to know so many athletes and become close with them. It seemed like ONE FC decided to match up a bunch of my friends on this card just to see how close they could get me to an anxiety attack. And so, I left the event with a mix of emotions from exhilaration to crestfallen sadness. Starting from the very first match.

Getting there the fast way

In the lobby of the Amara hotel just before the event, I met Alex Wong, the founder of the amateur competition Malaysian Invasion MMA. He started out as one of those guys who put the “fanatic” in fan when ONE FC first introduced the sport of MMA to Kuala Lumpur. Not content with sitting in the audience, Alex went on to form the first Malaysia-only amateur MMA organization and what could possibly be the largest of its kind in the world. He rolls deep too, as he offered me a ride to the stadium in his friend’s Porsche SUV. How could I refuse?

This friend happens to be a racecar driver (and will remain nameless in case Malaysian cops can give online speeding tickets). I live in Hong Kong and the closest thing I get to driving excitement these days is a front row seat on the minibus known as the “Mongkok Rocket” that regularly jumps curbs and dumps you into the lap of the guy next to you. So I asked new racecar friend to show a little bit of what he’s capable of on the straightaway to the stadium. He obliged. I now want a Porsche. Or a minibus.

We parked in the second row to leave room for the Ferraris and Lamborghinis that plunk themselves down at the front row entrance to the red carpet. Seriously, it’s like a party straight out of a James Bond movie. Eventually I made my way to the media section and grabbed a coveted front row seat, and waited for the preliminary fights to begin.

The Kings and Champions enter

ONE FC changed up the opening ceremony for this event. Instead of the fighters encircling the cage to the theme song, they came into the cage from opposing sides, match by match, and faced off. It was unorthodox – a fresh approach and possibly geared for broadcast. In the rehearsals I was priveledged to watch, it seemed very intense. Did it come off the same way when broadcast? I’d like to know what others thought of it. Also, the fighters made their entrance from an arena chute and not the ramp. I really, really like the stage and the ramp. I appreciate seeing the fighters’ reactions as they face the crowd – and I’ve just admitted I do like the pageantry, not just the sport.

#1 – Ronald Low versus Chen YunTing

The Singapore Indoor Stadium was about 75% capacity at the start of the first match – a nice sight on a Friday evening given the crazy rush hour traffic. It was also a good thing for the first fighters to enter the cage, Singapore’s own Ronald Low who faced Malaysian opponent Chen YunTing in a typical country versus country rivalry. I don’t know much about Chen, other than second-hand reports of his improvements in training. Ronald, however, moved to Hong Kong for school recently, so I was able to get to know him a little bit and see him train. The guy is so nice, that even during his weight cut period, he and his girlfriend insisted on taking me out for a birthday drink after our interview. He is an intelligent, humble, and genuinely pleasant guy.

Singapore roared with excitement as Low entered the arena. Once the cage was locked, Ronald impressed me by taking the action right to Chen and commanding the pace. He was definitely outstriking his opponent, but his head was high and left him vulnerable to a shot right down the chute that looked like it broke his nose. Chen was very adept at seeing and capitalizing on this, landing a straight that sat Ronald on his butt. Chen smelled blood and made a determined effort to finish.

The first fight, and my heart had already leaped out of my chest. It was a duality of emotions conflicting: watching a young fighter make his professional debut and endure an onslaught before claiming a perfect victory; watching a friend with such a positive attitude and solid mindset get rocked and hurt in the biggest match of his life. Chen should definitely be motivated by this win and realize he’s set himself up to face the next level of competition from the results of his performance. Ronald, I know you will have learned volumes from this experience and I doubt it will have dented your disposition; let your friends do your crying for you.

#2 –
Jake Butler versus Swain Cangco

What’s this thing called a weight class? Alright, so now, already wearing my heart on my sleeve, I watched Swain Cangco take the steps to the cage to face Goliath – I mean Jake Butler. Jake’s original opponent fell through and Swain stepped up to the challenge with just two weeks notice. Seriously, anyone with an ounce of cowardice in their soul would have run away at the weigh ins when facing the specimen that is NCAA Division 1 wrestler Butler. With a Minowanman-baited atmosphere of anticipation, I felt at one with the crowd during our collective inhalation when the bell rang.

Swain looked light on his feet and not phased at all by the chiseled-from-stone Greek statue stalking him. Even when the inevitable smash to the canvas occurred, Swain defended off his back in surprising fashion and managed to get it standing. The underdog reflex in me kicked in, and I felt myself cheering for the little big man (in my head of course) while knowing that the end was still nigh. Even so, it was hard to feel completely enmeshed in Swain’s tragedy because of knowing that Jake gave up an entire world of luxury to pursue his dream in the cage. Jake eventually did the predictable and mounted, raining blows down on David – sorry, Swain – that nobody, including Yuji Shimada, wanted to see too much of.  I don’t know who you could throw at Jake who’s not already swimming in the big kids’ pool right now.

#3 –Bashir Ahmad versus Shannon Wiratchai

Things got started on the live Star Sports broadcast with this fight and the crowd in Singapore was loud! The feeling was completely on another level as if everyone believed that all Singaporeans were on TV together.

Jake Butler gave up his job and for his love of MMA he moved to Singapore. Bashir Ahmad gave up his job and for his love of MMA moved to Pakistan – wait, what?! Bashir is the living embodiment of selfless dedication to a cause. Anyone who moves from a position of status and relative comfort to return to their ancestral roots and make a contribution to its development cannot be commended by a few measly written words. Bashir has a rare mix of perseverance and exuberance that make him at once likeable and admirable. When he entered the cage almost crying, I could see every emotion welling up inside of him at the culmination of all his hard work.  Tear-jerker!

Shannon has a similar educational background and has continued to surprise (or dismay?) his parents by focusing on martial arts time and time again. Beginning with judo, he progressed through many disciplines including Chinese martial arts (and he became fluent in Mandarin), Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and of course his native Muay Thai. He was a proponent of Naksu since 2009, Thailand’s amateur MMA competition, and won a championship there. I’ve come to know Shannon through several different martial arts because he is constantly involved. A real life “kung fu guy”. He’s always extremely kind and positive, as well as developing into a real contender – his fight with Mitch Chilson showcased what he’s capable of.

Both of these guys entered with huge amounts of applause, and they deserved it, even if they never set foot inside a cage again. Bashir brought the fight and Shannon showed off his judo trips immediately. When Shannon cut Bashir over the eye with an elbow, the fight was paused while the doctor checked it and Shannon showboated his elbow. Apparently Bashir’s eyebrows are made of industrial-grade rubber.

This was the first fight of the night to go into the second round, which saw Bashir outwrestle for the first half, and Shannon land some strikes in the last. And while they hopped around the cage quite a bit, the crowd got restless. Round three was a bit tentative as well until Bashir landed two painfully audible body kicks, and the round ended with a flurry. Bashir was covered in blood and smiles.

I’m glad, really glad I wasn’t a judge in this one. It wasn’t the most action-packed bout of the evening, and it would have been the one time I would have been content to hear “draw”, but one of them deserved to win and in his debut effort it was Bashir whose hand was raised. Shannon was remarkably composed and congratulatory in contrast with Bashir’s overwhelmed state. Bashir had a country riding on his shoulders and he made them proud. I wanted to start waving the Pakistan flag at that moment too.

#4 –Alex Silva versus Rene Catalan

Alex Silva was a bit of a naughty boy, and even though his family didn’t come from means, his father put him in capoeira classes early on to teach him some discipline. It started him into a life of martial arts that eventually saw him transition in BJJ after watching Royce Gracie in the UFC (like 99% of us) and go all the way to a gold medal in the Mundials. Alex’s dream came true when he was vouched for by childhood friend Leandro Issa and invited to join the Evolve Fight Team.

Rene Catalan has fought through adversity during much of his life. Dreaming to be a boxer, he was led down another road and ended up competing in wushu. When he saw that the Philippines was giving a 1.5 million pesos incentive for gold medalists in the Doha Asian Games of 2006, his father – also a martial artist – had recently passed away and he wanted to provide for his mother and four younger siblings who were still in school. He took the gold, and with the money repaired the family home, bought a vehicle, started a business for his family, and gave the rest away to family and friends.

Rene’s compassionate story keeps going. Last year he moved to Beijing to take up a coaching position in order to earn money for an operation needed by his wife. The condition was life-threatening and during his tenure, she passed away. Again, fighting in adversity became the norm for Rene as he stepped into the ONE FC cage for the first time.

Alex is a guy who is blessed and you can tell he doesn’t take anything for granted when he speaks to you. Rene has the heart of a warrior and the temperament of a saint. Seeing them face each other was akin to watching two good brothers fight. Knowing that each of them has skill enough to finish a fight in their respective disciplines made it a nail-biting match as well.

Sure enough, fireworks ensued. Rene threw a trademark high kick which Alex caught for a single. Down it went into Alex’s water, but Rene started scrambling and making all kinds of crazy reversals and defenses. Alex proved that BJJ is a necessary component of MMA and Rene proved that he’s an incredibly adept athlete. Given Rene’s recent loss of his wife, I would have been sent into tears for his loss in the cage, but the consummate competitor took it in stride and with respect to his opponent, making me feel nothing but respect and admiration for him.

#5 –
Leandro Issa versus Yusup Saadulaev

Leandro Issa has been on the BJJ and MMA scene in Asia since Evolve’s inception. He’s got mad, mad, mad jitz skills. As a human being, he’s as cool as they come, and has boundless energy. I’ve been thrilled to see him every time he’s competed, and always happy to talk to him.

I watched ringside as Yusup trapped Hideo Tokoro’s arm and go for a suplex which slammed the DREAM stalwart into unconsciousness. Yusup was mortified and had little celebration for his win, showing what a true sportsman he is.

These are two men who have exceptional careers with a recent set back for both in the Bantamweight Grand Prix, but other than that disappointment I could finally sit back and watch a fight without my heart breaking for a change. And what a great fight it was! Both guys showed technique, explosiveness, heart and endurance. I could watch a rematch. It just goes to show the developing level of talent in Asia right now. Issa was the superior of the three round battle and edged the decision out for his extreme effort.

#6 –
Eddie Ng versus Arnaud Lepont

I don’t know Eddie personally but the amount of press on the guy coupled with his incessant tweets on the healthy lifestyle that I should be living has made him become a bit larger than life to me. Arnaud I do know, as well as everyone else on the planet by now. In fact I think I know every meal he’s had in the last 2 months as well as his favorite cheese and the latest movie he’s seen. So through social media and marketing, these two fighters have become the most recognized locally-based fighters on the ONE FC roster.

The hype up to the event was insane and fortunately both guys lived up to it. Eddie came out with the distinct gameplan to take down and ground and pound. Arnaud is a slippery one and didn’t let it end that way in the first – he even dropped his hands and said Bring It. Into the second round and both guys came out smiling to the delight of the crowd, and me too. At the near end of round two, Eddie poured it on and made a dominating finish by armbar, to which Arnaud grimaced, then hoisted Eddie on his shoulders for a victory lap. I think both guys gained even more fans after that finish, if it’s even possible.

#7 –
Kevin Belingon versus Thanh Vu

I don’t know Thanh Vu except for first meeting him at ONE FC 7. He was always smiling and confident throughout the event and no different for this show. Kevin, on the other hand, I’ve grown to know quite well through several different promotions right up to his now Grand Prix Finals shot against Masakatsu Ueda. All of the Team Lakay guys are as sharp as they come and incredibly polite. It’s taken years to get Kevin to stop calling me “Ma’am”.

I’m always excited to see the Lakay machine at work in the cage, and Kevin didn’t disappoint. I didn’t get emotional for this one. Coach Mark Sangiao probably would smile and make me run up a Baguio mountain and start flipping tires of I did. Kevin methodically worked Thanh with leg kicks throughout the first and finished in the start of the second with a high kick and follow up flurry.

Afterwards, Thanh was still all smiles. Kevin was his normal humble self, with perhaps a bigger grin than normal. He has been thoroughly tested since being signed to ONE FC, and it doesn’t look like he’s anywhere near stopping.

#8 –Jens Pulver versus Masakatsu Ueda

What more can I say about Jens that hasn’t already been said? The guy is a walking posterboy for so many worthy causes, because he’s been down such a difficult road in his life. He’s always got time for his fans and sees every opportunity in the public eye as a chance to promote selfless causes.

Ueda is almost the polar opposite of Jens – he’s shy to the point of vanishing as soon as your eyes are turned. One of the highlights of my time in MMA was when Yohei Suzuki thanked me for getting him to relax and smile for a change.

These two fighters are very well known in Asia now, and the crowd showed their appreciation when they entered the cage. Both of these guys knew what is at stake in the semifinals of the tournament, but they are both extremely seasoned and know how to be cautious without being conservative. Ueda was able to control the first round while Jens worked well to defend once it was on the ground. In the second, Jens got a takedown but Ueda capitalized upon it so quickly it made my head spin. It was back and forth faster than two spiders on a hotplate. Ueda was the one to turn up the heat and work incredibly suffocating positions until he got the D’arce choke.

Nobody cries when Jens loses. He always puts up a fight and who can argue with that?

#9 – 
Melvin Manhoef versus Brock Larsen

Melvin Manhoef is one of the hardest working men in the business. I’ve been around him at so many shows and seen how he progresses through weight cut to win. He is so personable when you get past the fight mask, and it is a joy to see him work and learn in every round.

Brock Larson is a card. I interviewed him before the fight, and that was my first experience with the equally traveled cage vet. He cracks jokes constantly, and he’s completely honest about his feelings.

Because of these two incredibly likeable personalities, ONE FC turned me back into a basket case by having to watch this match. Melvin breaks coconuts with his pinkie and Brock knits with rebar so violence was most likely the main course. Brock tactically avoided Melvin’s bombs even resorting to a now famously-memed sprint away, but finally engaged with a takedown and position that tied up Melvin like a pretzel and left him vulnerable to being on the uncharacteristically receiving end of a barrage of bombs.

Throw your hands up for matchmaker Matt Hume who again left the crowd speechless. My heart wants to give Melvin a standing restart in a fourth round, but I like Brock too much to want to see him eat a boulder as well.

#10 –
Kotetsu Boku versus Shinya Aoki

When Kotetsu Boku weathered Zorobabel Moreira’s onslaught to TKO him, he won over an audience because of his underdog status and his charming personality. Over my ‘working holiday’ in Tokyo for New Years 2013, I spent some time at Krazy Bee and got to know him more, along with Kid Yamamoto and some of the amazing young fighters they are bringing up. Boku is so refreshing because of his friendliness and laid back demeanor and he’s been a great inaugural champ for ONE FC.

Shinya Aoki is a legend to me. Even after meeting him numerous times, I can’t take him off that pedestal. For this fight, he switched gears and became unusually emotional over craving revenge for his Evolve teammate’s loss. But I still couldn’t see past what I know of him in the ring, and now cage: a monster.

My underdog emotions were flaring up the moment Aoki tried to jump in front of the weigh in scale to psych out Boku. Boku’s 20-8 record and twelve year long MMA career are nothing to make him sit on a low rung by any means, but Aoki is, well Aoki, more machine than man and gravity-defying when he latches on.

Along with ten thousand other people, I sat on the edge of my seat through an entire round of Boku defending submissions and Aoki looking as if he was playing full contact with a Rubic’s cube. The crowd was split between blood-thirsty Aoki fans and nailbiters. When it went to a second, Aoki bluntly proved why he deserves the legend moniker. For once, Boku’s cheer disappeared and I did feel let down for him. Aoki was wrapped in the 2-tons of gold Championship belt and his emotions came out in a fountain of tears, as if his guard was finally completely let down (figuratively, of course).

In Closing

The contrast between exhilaration and defeat were no more prevalent than in the final moments of Shinya Aoki’s crowning as the new ONE FC Lightweight Champion. For me, it was the perfect moment to epitomize and cap off a thoroughly emotional event. The only way ONE FC can make number 9 in Manila even more heart-wrenching is if Yuji Shimada will play with some puppies cageside, and if babies are allowed in the winners’ photo ops. If that happens, I quit. Maybe I’ll become a reviewer for Korean dramas…